Special gear for a very unique job. Photo: Mary Villazon Photography, all photos courtesy of Nathan L unless otherwise noted.
This week’s Deepblu Diver Spotlight is a pretty cool one for me personally, as Nathan happens to be an alumnus of the same college that I graduated from and now works in law enforcement not too far from where we studied. Since our time at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, USA he’s gone into a great career that involves not only helping people, but diving. His stories shared below speak for themselves, so I’m going to let him get to it.
How’d you get started in diving?
Believe it or not I did not really start formally diving till I was at Roanoke, and my motivation for starting was a little strange. I was in a Counter Terrorism class with Agent Kevin Foust and he was talking about the FBI and Navy USRT (Underwater Search and Recovery Teams) and how he respected what they did and thought most people could not handle doing that kind of work. I realized I was just the type of person that could do it, so I signed up for OW SCUBA as an elective. Did all my confined water at the old pool at the college and my check out dives at Claytor Lake (cold, dark, and low visibility) and even in those conditions realized how much I enjoyed diving, and it took off from there.
How many certifications and specialties do you have since that time?
That’s a tough one, I am a consummate student and love to learn new things.
I did a lot of my initial certifications up to Divemaster with PADI (OW, AOW, Rescue, NITROX, Drysuit, Deep, Wreck, Advanced Buoyancy), as well as so Public Safety ones for Fullface, Ice Diver, and Underwater Criminal Investigation (UCI).
After I hit Divemaster crossed over into SDI/TDI/ERDI and went through Instructor. I became an ERDI Instructor: ERDI 1, ERDI 2, Drysuit Ops, Fullface Ops, Contaminated Water Operations. SDI Instructor: Open Water Instructor, NITROX, Drysuit, Deep, Nav, Wreck, Advanced Buoyancy, Fullface.
Then there is a similar list for SSI with a few extra instructor certifications like Low Viz, River, Search and Recovery, etcetera…
In addition to all of that nonsense I teach, I always come across more things I want to learn, and working with a shop allowed me to get things like SDI/TDI Sidemount, Solo Diver, rEvo CCR, Advanced Nitorx, Deco Procedures. As well as some certs to help out around the shop like Gas Blender, Visual Inspection Procedures, Scubility, Equipment Specialist.
That is not counting the DAN Instructor stuff or Freediving stuff.
What’s a search and rescue dive like?
Dark and Cold typically. I joke but all of my public safety dives involve diving in conditions that nobody in their right mind would do. You are fully encapsulated (Fullface Mask, Drysuit, Drygloves), hovering just off the bottom of your search area feeling blindly in the muck (you would be lucky to say you had 6” of visibility) for your target (gun, knife, body, other evidence). The water we are searching would be considered contaminated by almost any standard full of all sorts of hazards like chemicals, biologics, sharp objects (broken glass, needles, etc…), entanglements like downed trees, and the occasional snapping turtle (I love shark diving, but the turtles worry me). The dives are typically within 10’ and our team uses surface supplied air, because of that dive times are typically over an hour.
Even with all of that they become relaxing for a lot of us, since we have zero visibility it stops mattering if your eyes are open or closed. Everything starts to revolve around what you feel, that coupled with the rhythmic sound of breath, believe it or not, can make you feel very relaxed.
In short terms, what do you do for a living?
Law Enforcement Officer, and within that role I am a Field Training Officer, a DCJS certified General Instructor, a Crime Scene Technician, and the Training Officer and Member for the departments USRT.
Racing with the whale sharks.
The inevitable question: free dive or scuba?
I love both, and I teach for both. They offer different things; with that said I have a different kind of love for freediving, enough to have started my own business for it (Blue Alchemy Freediving). Freediving is a very inward, almost meditative practice, you learn a lot about yourself diving into the ocean on a single breath. The ocean is the most honest mirror I know, and there is no lying to it. As PFI says, “Veritas In Profundum Mare.”
In addition to all of that, the freediving industry has not become like what I see in SCUBA. There is a lot of negativity in the SCUBA industry between shops, agencies, and other organizations. I don’t feel that is conducive to growing the sport and is toxic for the industry as a whole. In freediving, or in my limited experience, it is very inclusive. Even amongst competitors, there is almost a family like quality. I think that alone has a draw to it as well.
How many times a year do you dive?
With USRT we train 15 times per year, plus a hand full of callouts. As an Instructor, I am in the water at least 2 weekends a month (just so happens I only have 2 weekends off a month) all year long. I normally help out with our OW students first, then if there are any specialty students that day I will work with them. If no students are present then I do some freediving if I have a safety with me, or I will put on some tanks and just go have fun.
As for actual numbers, I admit after the first 1,000 dives I became a slacker with logging them. Now I only log things of note like training, CCR, and interesting locations.
What are your favorite spots?
I love diving in North Carolina. I enjoy wrecks, but I don’t get to go as often as I would like.
I’m slowly getting into cavern and cave diving, loved the Cenotes in Mexico, Florida springs were nice but a little cold for me. My favorite locations are going to be places where I can SCUBA and still have depth to freedive, Big Island is one of my favorites because of this as well as Cayman and Roatan (Coco View Resort).
I have not got a chance to do a lot of diving in the Pacific, I have more than a few locations on my bucket list.
What’s it like taking a passion like diving and putting it to good use, such as with search and rescue as well as safety?
As I always say when I am doing USRT, a day in the water beats a day on the street anytime. I admit that when I am doing Public Safety Diving, it never feels like work; whether it is diving, or being dive tender for another diver, or teaching; it’s an excuse to be in, on, or near the water.
A stern warning, to say the least.
Any interesting stories you’d like to share?
I have a lot of stories; most of them are not really appropriate to share or tell. That is one bad part of the job, you get a few of those.
On the lighter side though, we have been doing searches for a machete under some bridges in less than reputable area; and were told by the OIC (Officer in Command) that if you find anything other than a knife that matches the one we are looking for do not bring it up! Also that he did not want to have to do 20 reports for something not related to the case.
We have had callout to “large lakes” that need to be searched, only to arrive and find out that it is a small cow pond not more than 25’ x 25’ with a max depth of 2 feet. Needless to say, that involved putting the newest member of the team in fishing waders and tying a rope to him and having him walk the pond. Where inevitably the tender holding the rope pulls him off balance, to which the only normal response is to then give your rope tender a hug as thanks. For all of us that laughed, karma being what it is, you occasionally get where the water is too shallow to dive, but the mud is too deep to walk; there are more than a few photos of the entire team on their bellies, crawling through the mud.
More than a few where on a training dive somebody loses something and we spending the remainder of the training looking for… I don’t know let’s say a wedding ring that was lost near the boat launch, in an area full of other metal objects.
Another is random objects found during training that become team trophies or things of that nature (old anchors and the like) One such that got passed around: we had a diver get hung up in a “pillowcase or towel” that was near the floating island in a lake, the diver came to the surface and threw the object at one of the team members on the shore, which he caught and unfurled to reveal the largest pair of women’s underwear I have ever seen. Which after many jokes were made, and then they were stuffed in the divers take home gear bag for his wife to find… and she did, with many questions to follow
Part of what makes a USRT work is how the team operates together, they need to be able to joke and cut lose up until the moment something needs to be done, and done right.
Thanks for sharing with us. Keep it up! Dive on.
– Todd Allen Williams, Senior Editor